Three shiploads of Prydwen went into it
Except seven, none returned from Caer Sidi
(extract from the Book of Taliesin manuscript)
Who – and when – was Taliesin?
This is a question with many answers and it is necessary to be clear about precisely what we are asking. Questions about Taliesin can best be discussed by identifying four separate but interacting categories:
The Historical Poet
This view of Taliesin sees him as the bard of the Brythonic chieftain Urien in the sixth century kingdom of Rheged which extended from Strathclyde (around modern Glasgow) down into Cumbria in northern part of the Lake District. Of the mass of poems in The Book of Taliesin a few are still held to be possibly written by this poet. They mainly sing the praises of his lord in common with much of the poetry composed by tribal bards at this time. But The Book of Taliesin is a fourteenth century manuscript collection given that name when discovered in a library in the seventeenth century. So the poems in it are not, in the form we have them, from the sixth century but later copies. As, initially, no-one could read them, they were assumed to be the work of a poet writing in Old Welsh. By now it has been established that most of the poems must be much more recent than that and all are, in fact, written in Middle Welsh in the manuscript versions we have.
If that was all that could be said, Taliesin would be no better known than Aneirin, another poet from what is now southern Scotland writing around the same time, who composed a series of elegies for the members of the Gododdin tribe who were wiped out in an attack on the Angles at the battle of Catraeth (modern Catterick in Yorkshire). That is, as with Aneirin, the debate about him would mainly be restricted to scholars attempting to date the poems from linguistic and historical evidence or discussing their contribution to the successive literary tradition in Welsh.
But Taliesin, like Myrddin, a third poet identified with same area, has been mythologised in a number of ways. And if the mythologisation of Myrddin as Merlin is at least clear and transparent, Taliesin has been transformed into a much more complex wizard for later generations.
The Legendary Bard
Many of the poems in The Book of Taliesin contain prophecies which link them to historical events in the ninth and tenth centuries. Others refer to stories that link them with prose tales in Y Mabinogi. Or with legendary exploits such as the raid by Arthur on Annwfn – the Brythonic Other World – to capture a magical cauldron. What is clear from consideration of the range of poems attributed to Taliesin is that, like Arthur, his name became a magnet for disparate material but also that he became the ‘type’ of the inspired poet. When later generations of Welsh poets in the Middle Ages looked back to the sources of their tradition, the place of beginning was ‘The Old North’, an area of southern Scotland and Northern England. Here the earliest poets using Welsh after it had developed from the Brythonic language some time after the Roman occupation, were seen as forefathers of the Welsh bardic tradition - one was called ‘Tad Awen’ (Father of the Muse) though none of his poems have survived. Collectively they were called the ‘Cynfeirdd’ (the earliest poets) and Taliesin became their iconic representative. So already, by the ninth century, he was being represented as a prophet and a magical figure who was present (whether imaginatively or otherwise) at various historical and legendary events from the beginning of the world to Arthur’s raid on the Other World. He was, in the Second Branch of Y Mabinogi, one of the seven who returned with the head of Brân from Ireland and sojourned with that head in Gwales in a timeless suspension of the everyday world. This is the poet as ‘awenydd’, an inspired individual such as those described by Gerald of Wales in the twelfth century, going into a prophetic or visionary state. He could now be regarded as the Spirit of Poetry.
The Wondrous Boy
At some point, inevitably, Taliesin entered the folklore tradition. The familiar story about Gwion Bach being given the job of stirring the cauldron of the witch Cerridwen and gaining universal knowledge by tasting a drop of the contents is a familiar motif. As is the sequence of shape-shifting as Cerridwen chases him and each turn into something different until she, as a hen, gobbles him up when he is disguised as a seed. His rebirth from her womb, his survival in his new identity as Taliesin, and his subsequent exploits at the court of Maelgwn Gwynedd, link this story to the legend of the gifted poet. In one sense this is just another example of the ‘magnet’ effect mentioned above, with the name Taliesin simply being attached to existing folk tale motifs. But in another sense it indicates how the figurative shape-shifter has become a ‘type’ not just of the Spirit of Poetry but the Spirit of Wales.
The Cultural Icon
The novelist and cultural critic Emyr Humphreys wrote a cultural history of Wales called The Taliesin Tradition. He uses the figure of Taliesin to represent Wales itself and in particular its literary life. The literary magazine published in Welsh by the Welsh Academy is simply called ‘Taliesin’. He was already seen as quintessential to Welsh identity long before he was also appropriated by the modern pagan community as a ‘Celtic Shaman’ and although the term itself has little meaning in the Welsh tradition, at least part of what it might indicate is covered by Gerald’s description of ‘awenyddon’. Appropriating to paganism the poet of The Book of Taliesin is difficult not least because he firmly identifies himself as a Christian. But the bardic tradition of someone who represents the Spirit of Poetry including the talent for inspired speech is, I suggest, quite enough to be going on with. Patrick Ford puts it like this:
“Clearly the tales of Gwion Bach and Taliesin cannot be lightly dismissed as “folktale” or late developments. Perceptible in them and in their attendant poems, despite the layering of successive generations and external influences, lies the myth of the primeval poet, in whom resides all wisdom.”
The poems ascribed to the bard of Urien Rheged were published by Sir Ifor Williams The Poems of Taliesin (English edition, 1968).
Other poems have been edited by Marged Haycock : Legendary Poems from The Book of Taliesin (2007) -The Welsh text with line by line translation and extensive commentary – an essential edition.
The quotation from Patrick Ford is from the introduction to his edition of Y Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales (1977) which contains the story of Gwion Bach and Taliesin.